New evidence of African writing system that pre-dates European colonialists

Fallou Ngom is a professor of anthropology in the College of Arts & Sciences at Boston University — but the path to that career began in earnest with his father's death in 1996. Ngom's prior academic focus had been in French and linguistics, but after returning to his late father's native Senegal to deal his family's belongings, he made a fascinating discovery: a handwritten note.

On the surface, this might not sound so remarkable; plenty of peoples' parents leave behind written notes. But Ngom had always understood his father to be illiterate. Or at least, he couldn't read or write in French, the official language of Senegal. The note that Ngom found, however, "was in a script that looked like Arabic, but sounded like Wolof, a regional West Atlantic language," according to Boston University. Which lead the academic down a path to an even more remarkable discovery: a native African writing system dating back to at least the 10th century, shattering European myths about pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africans lacking written language:

He found this modified Arabic script everywhere. Shopkeepers kept records with it and poets wrote sprawling verses in it. Ngom discovered religious texts, medical diagnoses, advertisements, love poems, business records, contracts, and writings on astrology, ethics, morality, history, and geography, all from people who were considered illiterate by the official governmental standards of their countries. 

What Ngom realized—slowly, and then with a bang—is that his father's notes were just the beginning. He had proof that a centuries-old writing system was still thriving in many African countries. 

In the same way that the Roman alphabet has been adopted to write English, French, and Spanish languages, Ngom's research revealed that people in Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, and other parts of West Africa use a modified Arabic alphabet to write in a number of local languages: Wolof, Hausa, Fula, Mandinka, Swahili, Amharic, Tigrigna, and Berber among them.

It was an enormous discovery. This writing system, called Ajami, dispelled the false notion peddled by European colonialists that large swaths of communities in sub-Saharan Africa were illiterate, with no native written languages of their own. 

Unearthing a Long Ignored African Writing System, One Researcher Finds African History, by Africans [Molly Callahan / Boston University]